John T Cartwright in What Is Home?
The challenge: create a work that is one minute or less. Sounds easy enough, right? That’s what I thought, but the further I got into the making process, the more I realized the complexity of one minute.
I began by thinking about what I want this piece to represent, what it is I’m trying to convey or portray. When I began working on this, back in August at the beginning of the semester, I was feeling homesick. Maybe not your typical homesickness, but a longing for familiarity. I’ve moved around a bit and traveled a lot on tours as a professional dancer, and I have always loved the adventure of a new place. But this new adventure of grad school is something completely different.
The move to Columbus, Ohio has been exciting, and is definitely a big adventure in a new place. Not only is it a change of location, but a change in the pathway of my career in dance. But let’s also state the obvious: this is all happening during a global pandemic, in an election year with a president who won’t condemn white supremacists, while an economic crisis and environmental catastrophes threaten the existence of our society, and police officers across the US continue to murder black people without recourse. So while the circumstances may not have been what I expected, I knew that beginning this semester, in what 2020 has become, would present several challenges. However, the feeling of homesickness I experienced wasn’t something I ever considered.
After spending 10 years in Chicago, it very much became my home. While I moved around the city often, experiencing a variety of the distinct neighborhoods in The Windy City, I always felt like I was in a place where I belonged. Growing up as a gay boy in a small town in western Kentucky, I didn’t always feel like I belonged where I lived. Sure, there were safe places like my dance studio, drama class, and marching band, but I always longed to live in an urban, metropolitan area where my queerness blended into the fabric of the city. Chicago was a place I thrived in being myself, a city where I could be “normal” in my queerness. Every time I left the city for work or holidays, I would return and feel a sense of homeness when I saw the skyscrapers, Lake Michigan, and the traffic jams on Lake Shore Drive.
In the first iteration of my less-than-one-minute-piece, I confronted my feelings of longing for Chicago. The things I missed the most was the familiarity I had with the city, and the comfortability I felt in my body inhabiting space there. I wanted to embody the anxiety I was feeling and display methods of self-soothing. I wrung my hands, hugged myself, trembled in my body, calmed myself with breath. I removed my socks, holding them close to my chest before leaving them on the ground as I made my exit, a symbol of me shedding a part of myself and moving on to something new. I seated my audience of fellow first year MFA students in a circle around me so they could get different angles and hopefully better pick up on some of the subtleties of the movement.
For my second attempt at this piece I took into account a lot of the feedback from my cohort. I asked myself their questions: why is the audience in the round? What is the significance of the socks? Is it a complete idea? I also asked myself, “What is homesickness?”, “Can this be done live on Zoom?” and “How do the sensations of homesickness physically manifest and how do I embody them?” If this piece is about homesickness, why not make the setting my home? I kept some of the same embodiments of anxiety with hand wringing and use of calming breath. In an effort to “show” not “tell” I incorporated more abstract movement by kicking my legs as I laid on the couch and using repetition and speed of gestures to invoke uncomfortableness. With my audience now viewing this on a screen, I played with site specific movement, utilizing my couch as a prop on which I demonstrated homesickness.
In my third and final restatement I again incorporated feedback, but I also delved into the evolution of my experience with homesickness. By the time I reached this step my homesickness had subsided and I was able to get a different perspective of why I was feeling these feelings. Taking the suggestion from the feedback of my second presentation of this work, I decided to strip down the movement and the setting. I removed everything in frame except for the couch and my body. I took the gestures of hand wringing and breathing to a minimal, almost pedestrian state. The result was something more deep, meaningful, and complete. The piece became less about exploring the phenomenon of homesickness and more about what the idea of home means.
I only had one minute to communicate a full thought. That thought became “What is home?” It is an idea that feeds into homesickness, but more broadly lays a foundation for viewers to reflect on their own experience. Home is not an easy thing to define, but it is something we all have a history with, complicated or not, and it is something that relates to multiple experiences throughout a lifetime. We may not be able to define what home is, but we know it when we feel it.